Swimming pools have long since ceased to be a source of wonder, now so ubiquitous it is said that if you missed your footing in Westport, you would be liable to fall into a swimming pool.
But it was not always so, and half a century ago the opening of the first public pool in Mayo sparked off a wave of enthusiasm for swimming and water sports that has gone from strength to strength.
That first pool was located in Claremorris, making the town the acknowledged swimming capital of Connacht. Even if it was a rudimentary facility by later standards, it set the pace for so much of what was to follow. That first pool was very much a community effort, but most would agree that it was the idealism and ambition of one individual that made it all happen.
Paddy O’Brien was the local garage owner who, spurred on by repeated news of drowning accidents, resolved that there was a need for a facility where people could be taught to swim. And so, the story goes, on a journey back from Dublin one autumn evening, Paddy O’Brien’s attention was drawn to a sign that read ‘Mermaid Pools’. Within an hour, the deal was done for £500, and the Claremorris man became owner of a 12-metre, raised inflatable swimming pool.
His friend, Tommy Higgins, offered to convey the pool down to Claremorris, the local Boxing Club agreed to the use of its premises to have the pool installed and, before long, a meitheal of helping hands had assembled to lay on the heating and plumbing, all on a voluntary basis. And so in 1970, 50 years ago, the Claremorris pool, with two adjacent toilets and a set of steps needed to get into the water, was up and running.
There were few community facilities that gave as much satisfaction and enjoyment to so many in those early years as did the Claremorris pool. From all over the county, families and groups and clubs and organisations were attracted to the new facility.
The running of the pool was largely on a voluntary basis, with the unlocking of a surge of community pride finding expression through the Claremorris Swimming Club, where Fr John O’Boyle was proving a pivotal figure, and where Paddy and Sadie O’Brien were joined by the willing hands of people like Marian Cullinane, Hugh Cosgrove, Brid Harley and Tom O’Dea.
Claremorris was now the centre of Connacht swimming activity, and the accolades came thick and fast. All-Ireland honours became the norm for club swimmers, and for six successive years, Claremorris was named winner of the Leisureland Cup as the best swimming club in Connaught.
Within a few years, it became apparent that the original Mermaid pool was no longer able to cope with demand; it was time for Claremorris to look ahead to something more ambitious. And so the campaign began for a new ultra modern 25-metre pool, with all the attendant amenities. The case was well founded; Mayo was the only county without a local-authority-backed pool; Minister Bobby Molloy was himself a committed swimming enthusiast. In due course, the green light was given and, ten years after the arrival of the Mermaid pool, Claremorris opened Mayo’s first, full-size, local-authority swimming pool.
The project itself had required a local contribution of some €30,000, a not inconsiderable amount at the time. But for Claremorris, it was no great challenge. Or, as Fr O’Boyle told his committee, “If all the medals won by Claremorris swimmers in the past seven years were melted down, there would be no need for a collection for the new pool.”